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Into Sudan!


The Valley of the Kings, on the West Bank of the Nile in Luxor, is one of Egypt’s most famous destinations. All tombs in the region are found on the Western side because this is where the sun sets and that represents death and the afterlife. The site itself was pretty cool, yet again we both felt a bit disappointed by the main tourist attractions in Egypt. Everything is for sale, and we found it difficult to connect with the people working in the industry (which inevitably touches everyone up to fruit sellers). Here and also in Aswan we would have the feeling that we were always being ripped off to different extents. Again, this is understandable. Most tourists go there with lots of money, and this hugely disproportionate wealth stares locals in the face. As cyclists we are spoilt by usually being able to experience the less curated side of countries. I was even called a “rubbish tourist” by one man who was badgering us and I was ignoring. I found that quite funny, mainly because the expression sounded like it came straight from the mouth of an elderly British lady speaking trash. The part of the visit to the valley of the kings that Emma and I enjoyed most was walking to the far back of the valley and enjoying the silence. However, the tombs themselves were also impressive, deep underground, with the tunnel walls intricately and beautifully engraved with hieroglyphs and drawings whose colour is still brilliant today.


Evening market stall in Abu Simbel



We managed to get out of Luxor without a police escort. We also passed through 5 big police checkpoints without being stopped, we couldn’t believe it. Towards the end of the day, only 5kms before the spot we had scouted on Google Earth to possibly camp, a man on a motorbike persistently drove next to and in front of us speaking on the phone and asking where we were going. We later established that he must have been calling the police on us, because soon enough they were following us. Very relaxed and friendly, and they said there was no problem but they would just be trailing us. So we asked if we could sleep at their next checkpoint in 15kms and they said yes no problem! So we got there, everyone was super friendly and we set up our tents. Then we were informed that the General was not actually keen on us sleeping there. So we set down our tents again and drove 50kms with our bikes and Arturo in the back of the bakkie, with a friendly officer who was apologetic and a bit embarrassed because the front lights of the car didn’t work, so he had to use the blue flashing lights to illuminate the road. We almost knocked over a donkey. We were preparing to stay in another hotel that night, but then he dropped us at a sort of campsite, or what he called a garden. Turns out it was a wedding photo venue, and there was a group of 5 others camping there who were doing Cairo to Cape Town. We were quite tired, and their energy levels were way higher than ours so we didn’t chat too much. The next morning, after repairing a flat tyre, we set off for a long stretch, we wanted to try get to Aswan in one day, 112km, Emma’s and my longest day. We managed, and that stretch of the Nile was the best we had seen so far. But it was very hot and the road full of speed bumps which slowed us down quite a lot. We were happy to arrive at the hostel in Aswan, which was South of the main touristy part of the city, right on the river, and we stayed in tents on the rooftop which was cool. We also bumped into Jeremy the Australian again here, who was recovering from an intense stomach bug which he contracted at the restaurant across the road.

Emma happy on a full tummy of the last Koshary we would eat in Egypt, in Abu Simbel


We took a rest day in Aswan, which mainly consisted of re-stocking food and spending some hours at the bike shop, the next one would be in Khartoum in more than 1500km so Arturo and I wanted to figure out the clicking coming from somewhere in our pedals or cranks. Max the mechanic re-greased our bottom brackets and taught us some things about that component. We felt better heading into the desert now. The stretch from Aswan to Abu Simbel can either be done by ferry which leaves once a week on Sundays, or you can cycle 270km through the desert. This would be our first big desert crossing, and we didn’t really know how much water and food would be available along the way so we felt a bit anxious but at the same time up for the challenge. We only got out of the city at 12pm in the mid-day heat, and had to wait around at the police checkpoint for 30 minutes for them to get a car that could follow us. But they only checked up on us sporadically which was great. We saw full on mirages that afternoon which was pretty cool. We managed 70kms before 5pm, which was when we were no longer allowed to cycle, so we put our bags in the police car, our bikes on a bakkie that they pulled over, and they drove us 50kms to sleep at their police checkpoint in the middle of the desert. This was a good experience. These men stayed out there for 20 days in a row, and were then allowed to go home for 10 days break. They were noticeably more relaxed and laidback than previous cops. We thought being out there away from everything might have something to do with this. Seeing the higher ranking officers in their pyjamas also made them a bit more endearing to us. In Egypt there is compulsory service time in the police, depending on your level of education. University graduates serve one year, high-school graduates 2 years, and primary school graduates 3 years of service. We got the feeling that many of the younger policemen sympathised with us and thought some of the antics were as ridiculous as we did.




Many aesthetic cellphone towers, not much cellphone reception in Sudan!

Arriving at camp



The next day Emma and I again set the longest stretch of our trip, 117km in very hot conditions. We also said cheers to Arturo, who we had been enjoying travelling with for about 2 weeks but who is on a tighter time schedule than us so needed to speed up a bit. We had a mild tailwind which helped us along, but after lunch we had to stop in a small patch of shade because our brains started feeling like boiling eggs on the endlessly straight tar roads. When we stopped moving, we experienced optical illusions from staring at the road coming towards us for so long. The young policemen told us they believed in us (this unexpected source of moral support was great) and that we could make it to Toshka before 5pm where we could sleep at the next police checkpoint. We did make it there, and were shown where we could set up our tents. We were exhausted and didn’t even mind too much that the area felt a bit sketchy, this being a major truck stop with hundreds of trucks parked around the place. Until the next stubborn General arrived and refused to let us sleep there. 2 hours later, and after much back and forth, we finally submitted to staying in a highly over-priced hotel (which we did manage to bargain down from 1000 Egyptian Pounds to 700). The used tissues and cigarette butts lying on the floor and the beds which had clearly been slept in a couple times before, reminded us of how much we missed sleeping in our tents.




In Abu Simbel, we again had to stay in a hotel (hopefully our last), which this time was at least a cool colourful place with a friendly owner but it still cost us 50USD (bargained down from 70USD). This was about 4 times our entire daily budget. The next morning we caught the ferry across Lake Nasser and I spent the time doing some research about Sudan, which lay close to the other side. The country has an ancient history of civilisation, and previously rule over the land was passed back and forth between different external powers including the Ottomans, the British, and the Egyptians. It gained independence from the British in 1956. In 2011 it lost the title of largest country by area in both Africa and the Arab world to Algeria, with the secession of South Sudan. Statistically speaking, it has comparatively low levels of development across a variety of metrics. However, we had heard only good things from other cyclists, as well as having already met some great Sudanese people in Egypt. When we arrived on the other side, and had passed a line of trucks 3km long waiting for the ferry (with most of the truck drivers sitting preparing food or doing some repairs in the shade of their trucks; they would wait there about 7-10 days), we had about 30kms to the border of Sudan. Without any police following us, and barely any cars at all, we already felt a sense of freedom and lightness we hadn’t felt in the rest of Egypt. After 2 hours completing a slightly chaotic border crossing, we were finally on Sudanese soil. That night we pushed our bikes off the road and slept alone in the desert. I walked up a small hill in the bright moonlight and the only signs of life I could see all around where a few dim lights on the other side of Lake Nasser far in the distance and the occasional truck. What a place to find oneself standing. The wind picked up that night, and would stay with us relentlessly for the next days. We woke up at 4am to try and spot the comet we had been reading about that was supposed to be visible in the early morning hours. Although we didn’t see the comet, the bright moon had set and the stars were shining brilliantly.


We encountered a light breeze every now and then

We have figured out that dense trees like this thorn tree actually provide better wind protection than walls/abandoned buildings. These structures tend to create some whirlwind effect which throws up lots of dust, while trees seem to absorb the energy better.

Laundry on the line

The cycle into Wadi Halfa with a strong tailwind would give us a taste of how the riding would be the next days. When one stops cycling, everything becomes intense; wind and sand and noise rushing past and into your face, nose, ears and eyes. When you get moving again, it becomes quiet and still and you float along at 30km/h, with the sand dancing in the air alongside you. When you turn to the East or West, however, you and your bike must lean with some degrees into the wind in order not to be blown over, and your shirt flaps and catches the wind like a sail. You close the eye on the side of the oncoming wind and pull your face cloth and cap down to prevent the sand from penetrating your face. We imagined a few times what it would be like cycling Sudan from South to North in these months, oof. In the town of Wadi Half we met Alsabah, who came up to us to say hello as we were buying aubergines and tomatoes. He proceeded to show us where we could find all it was that we needed: fuel, SIM cards, water, money exchange, bananas, falafel. Trained in Aircraft Maintenance, he had an easy, quiet, but also outgoing nature, and we really enjoyed his company. He invited us to orange juice at his aunt’s small restaurant. We would learn that he was searching for work yet there was not much available in his field, in Sudan.


We spent some time thinking about the gains to the world as a whole if those with skills and determination such as Alsabah could move more freely to where opportunity lay. Getting a working visa for a European country, for example, is a very long, expensive and difficult process. While we do not yet understand the complexities of this issue, we are learning more from those we meet long the way. We also understand that it is a complex and tricky subject. We would meet more people, mainly more highly educated, who were considering attempting the Mediterranean crossing. The only thing holding one university-educated man back, was his mother’s wish for him not to go. The journey is very expensive (±$5000 to get to Libya from Ethiopia or Sudan, and then ±$4000 to attempt the sea crossing), which means that only those already better off could possibly afford it. I say ‘attempt’ the crossing, because I have been told by someone familiar with the subject that as many as 1 in 2 people don’t survive. The fact that many people are willing to risk their lives, getting onto a boat into the unknown leaving behind their world, their culture and often their families, reminded me once again about the stark inequality in the world. Because it is inequality that pushes people to this point. This term, often spoken about in the abstract or reduced to a number such as the Gini coefficient, contains very real pain and injustice and I think it is undeniably one of the underlying blemishes on humanity. Obviously, inequality per se is not bad, it would be impossible for everyone to be exactly equal in every sense, but the extent of it seems terrible. We don’t propose any grand solution to this problem either, but there are some very concrete steps available out there which could be taken. We are just trying to record some on-the-ground, real life details. I would later meet Zekarias who would share his story which showed a different face of inequality, with a healthy dose of corruption mixed in. He is an Ethiopian translator who works at the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) in Khartoum; he has 10 years of translating experience, and speaks 6 languages. He has 5 children and earns $400 per month (most people in Sudan who have jobs earn $100-$400p/m). His manager earns $35,000p/m. This is a wage ratio of 87 (!). He also tells me of a new French manager who he estimates to be about my age (mid-twenties-thirties) earning $25,000 per month. These positions are all held by foreigners, who live lavish lifestyles (think fat Land Rovers and lunch from the best restaurant in Khartoum every day), who then after a few years grow tired of Sudan and leave. All this while the actual intended recipients of the money (which comes from tax payer money from select UN member states), spend years of their lives in desperate conditions in refugee camps. Perhaps something is slightly off here?


In Wadi Halfa we stocked up on water and fresh food- we think the next bigger place where we could get food was 180km away in Abri, and water was 125km away. 80km into this stretch we found a spot behind a hill out of the wind. We decided the next morning to take a rest day here; there’s something about arriving to the middle of nowhere, and then choosing to stay there a day and a night longer than strictly necessary. We spent the morning cleaning and repairing our bikes, and then set up a complicated wind and sun protection contraption with the tarpaulin; without that we would have fried as there was absolutely no shade around. The afternoon we spent reading and creating a land art work on the slope opposite us, to put our brains and bodies to use in a different way.

Difficult to see here, but we created some land art which is kind of a circle from this angle but is actually a long funny oval shape on the ground.


We have worked out that we can comfortably live with 9-10litres of water per day for the 2 of us. That means 2-3 litres each for drinking (depending on how hot it is and how much we exert ourselves and sweat on the road). 250-500ml each for the daily flannel shower, 2-3 litres for cooking and tea and coffee, and 1 litre for washing dishes. Interesting how when you have to carry each liter with you, and when refill stations are far between, you become very conscientious of each drop leaving the water bottle. We also both noticed that when entering a long stretch where we are unsure whether there will be water, one becomes even thirstier just thinking about the fact! The water situation in Sudan pleasantly surprised us. In Egypt, we unfortunately had to mainly buy bottled water, or boil or filter water. Once we got to Sudan, we learnt that bottled water was not really a thing, and that water would regularly be provided for public use in big clay pots (50-100cm tall) sheltered under a roof with 2 walls. We would come to love these water stations. They came in a variety of shapes and sizes, age, and distance between. The beauty was in the simplicity. 2-8 rounded-bottom pots would sit in metal holders like big brown dragon eggs in egg cups, and because they were slightly porous, the outside surface was always slightly wet. The 2 open sides of the shelter would be facing North and South, the directions of the prevailing winds, and therefore the wet outsides of the pots exposed to the wind meant the water inside was always deliciously cool and refreshing. Sand and dust would get inside, but it would mainly just sink to the bottom. There was always a communal cup or two available for people to drink from. We did still filter the water most of the time. Some things we didn’t quite figure out; who filled them up, if it was a government service, and if the water was filtered beforehand. We used these oases to quench our thirst, wet our shirts and head clothes, wash our faces and hands, and clean some clothes and sometimes some dishes (obviously not in the pots themselves).


Public drinking water


We have been tracking the phases of the moon, trying to figure out the pattern without Googling an explanation. There seems to be some pattern, but mostly it just does what it wants. Any simple explanations would be appreciated!


We quite often find oursleves camping close to power lines, because they follow the roads, and we don't push too far off the road when possible- the sand is thick and th load is heavy!


The strip of land on either side of the Nile in Northern Sudan is much less intensively cultivated than in Egypt. We don’t know what it used to look like here before humans and the invention of agriculture, but can imagine the Nile here looks much closer to that than in the highly productive neighbour to the North. We left the main road to take a closer look at the river one morning, and came across a field of fava beans, used to make the traditional staple ‘ful’ dish (a bean stew mainly eaten for breakfast). A man approached us and offered show us around his farm. The gentle breeze, and Sami’s gentle nature as he showed us his variety of crops was fantastic. He grew primarily the fava beans, but also okra, 2 types of zucchini, pumpkin, maize, radishes, aubergines and 1 baby marijuana plant (subsistence farming?), as well as having 3 cows, 1 of which he milked. He had electricity access via a cable running from the village, which operated the pump that got the water out of the Nile. He also showed us that he drank straight from the Nile, and we found out later that him and his cousin both swim right there, despite the crocodiles that live on the island just across from them.


He took us to his cousin Shahanez and uncle’s home down the road, where she prepared a big meal for us. The house was elegantly built, and Emma and I appreciated the simple, uncluttered yet big open spaces, with a large courtyard between the eating room and kitchen. They also had 2 outdoor living areas. The buildings were the colour of the land, and the few painted decorations on the wall were the colour of the sky. The meal consisted of 2 types of bread (Shahanez had just baked the thin variety, ‘etar’,) a big bowl of the best ‘ful’ we had tasted since getting to Egypt (fava beans grown 50m away), zucchini and onion stew (also from the farm), okra sauce (dark green and slimy as the vegetable is), a bowl of yogurt (they were very confused when we politely declined, but trying to explain the reasons we don’t eat animal products would have been a bit tricky in sign language and the little common language we spoke), and finally halva and tea. She was a middle school teacher of Arabic, the Quran and Geography, and uncle Mohammed also used to be a farmer. We learned that they were Nubians, and that Nubians live along the Nile roughly between Dongola in the South up to Aswan in the North in Egypt. Shahanez’ husband was working as a truck driver in Saudi Arabia as many Sudanese do, and she hadn’t seen him for 2 years. We were offered to stay and rest there for a day or two; this was another example of genuine African hospitality, and we were very happy to have met this family. Shahanez also gave us a kilogram bag of dried dates (which we would cook into our new standard breakfast of rice with cinnamon), some more of her bread and half a tub of halva for the road.


Thank you Shahanez for the fantastic, unexpected, locally grown, homecooked meal whipped up in a few minutes!




Mountain peaks in the desert between Wadi Halfa and Abri


I write this from Khartoum, where we have spent a week (semi-unexpectedly), but the things we run into here will be a topic of the next post.


Please take a look at the ‘Support Us’ section of this website (you can click the bright red ‘Donate/Support Us’ button to be taken there), from where you will find another link to our GoFundMe page. We are raising money for 2 extremely well-deserving charities, and rely on donations for this as well as the living expenses on our trip. Please also forward this blog post/ our website link to anyone who you think might find it interesting!


For everyday photos and updates, Emma is doing a fantastic job posting regularly on Instagram




We crossed the 5000km mark of our trip a couple days ago, which we are proud of :)


Oscar

285 views8 comments

8 comentários


Karin Duncker
Karin Duncker
01 de mar. de 2023

I so look forward to reading about this amazing adventure you both are on. You will be telling these stories for many years to come.

And shot! 5000km, you both must be as fit as fiddles. Wishing you continued happy peddling and exciting encounters. Can't wait to read your next "chapter".

Curtir
Respondendo a

Thanks Karin, it makes us super happy to hear that others can enjoy some of the journey along with us! Haha yes, at least the bottom halves of our bodies are quite fit at this point. Lots of love, Oscar and Emma

Curtir

Chris Maeyer
Chris Maeyer
27 de fev. de 2023

Love reading your blogs. I am so amazed by the two of you, I cannot imagine cycling those distances in those conditions with that amount of weight but what an experience, many many kudo's to you.

Sending lots of love and know that you are in Josette and my thoughts constantly.

Curtir
Respondendo a

Hey Chris and Josette, thank you for the comment and the compliments! I guess it helps that we don't have much else to do all day long aside from pedal those pedals and do camping things :)

Curtir

Oma and I are so proud of you and enjoy reading your stories, especially your thoughts about inequality, which is very visible in Africa. Hopefully your experiences in Ethiopia will be somewhat better. From the little we have seen about Ethiopi, that country and its people must be extremely beautiful. Good luck and good health is all we can wish for the two of you! Lots of love, Oma and Opa.

Curtir
Respondendo a

Hi Oma and Opa, thanks for the comment and the thoughts. Yes, inequality is very visible in different forms, but the inequality between countries (as opposed to within countries) is also something that we think about often!

Curtir

Imke Maeyer
Imke Maeyer
25 de fev. de 2023

Thanks Oscar, I love reading your blog posts, and when you write about your thoughts on inequality, human behaviour or any other topic that i know is close to your heart, it feels like you are right here in the room with me and having the conversation!

Enjoy Ethiopia and all the new challenges and adventures that it brings you. 🤗

Curtir
Respondendo a

Thanks Mama, many of these thoughts (especially on inequality) were originally sparked by you!

Curtir
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